An Examination of Probation Officer Tasks by Officer-Caseload Type

AuthorHaley R. Zettler,Kelli D. Martin
Published date01 August 2021
Date01 August 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2021, Vol. 32(7) 693 –717
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0887403420980823
An Examination of Probation
Officer Tasks by Officer-
Caseload Type
Kelli D. Martin1 and Haley R. Zettler2
Prior research regarding probation officer roles and tasks has included statutory
analyses, time studies, and computation of daily tasks in relation to risk level of
offenders. However, there is limited research investigating specific proportions of
probation officer tasks by officer caseload type. The current study builds on existing
literature by providing an initial investigation into the daily tasks of adult probation
officers of a medium-sized, tri-county probation department in a Southwestern state.
For all officers, only 26% of tasks involved face-to-face contact with probationers.
While regular caseload officers had the largest caseloads, specialized officers were
more likely to supervise high-risk individuals. Court officers had the lowest proportion
of face-to-face contact with probationers among the three groups. There were some
significant differences in tasks observed between specialized and court officers and
no statistically significant differences between regular officers and specialized officers.
Recommendations for changes in probation practice are provided.
probation officers, workload, caseload, tasks, community corrections
Considering that probation is the most widely used sanction in the criminal justice
system (Kaeble & Cowhig, 2018), the empirical literature remains lacking regarding
1Taylor Callahan & Coleman, Bexar, and Hidalgo Counties Community Supervision and Corrections
Department, Abilene, TX, USA
2University of North Texas, Denton, TX, USA
Corresponding Author:
Kelli D. Martin, Research Policy Planner, Taylor Callahan & Coleman, Bexar, and Hidalgo Counties
Community Supervision and Corrections Department, P. O. Box 6848, Granbury, TX 76049, USA.
980823CJPXXX10.1177/0887403420980823Criminal Justice Policy ReviewMartin and Zettler
694 Criminal Justice Policy Review 32(7)
the role, duties, and specific job tasks of the probation officer. What research does
exist includes statutory analyses of probation officer roles (Bonta & Andrews, 2007;
Burton et al., 1992; Hsieh et al., 2015; Purkiss et al., 2003; Seiter & West, 2003), dif-
ferences between the roles of adult and juvenile probation officers (Steiner et al.,
2004), and role conflict of probation officers (Allard et al., 2003; Ellsworth, 1990;
Sigler, 1988; Sigler & McGraw, 1984).
This study is an exploratory quantitative task analysis of adult probation officer
activity by caseload type from a medium-sized, tri-county adult probation agency in a
Southwestern state. The analysis is designed to examine tasks by officer-caseload type
(court probation officer, regular caseload probation officer, and specialized caseload
probation officer) utilizing reports and data records extracted from the department’s
case management system. Our research differs from other more recent studies that use
self-report measures for time and workload analyses in that we use quantitative data to
exam tasks and differences between officer-caseload type (DeMichele & Payne, 2018;
Matz et al., 2018; Ostrom et al., 2013).
Literature Review
The growth in the use of community corrections as a viable alternative to incarcera-
tion, especially probation, has increased unabated for the last three decades. Year-end
2016, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported 3,789,800 were on probation, and an
additional 870,500 on parole, compared with 2,172,800 persons incarcerated in jails
and prisons nationwide (Kaeble & Cowhig, 2018). Initially, probation sentences were
generally reserved for less serious crimes, or low-risk offenders, who had not commit-
ted violent offenses and posed no serious threat to public safety (Petersilia, 1998).
However, due to burgeoning prison populations resulting from punitive legislation
passed in the 1980s and 1990s, probation became a way to alleviate already over-
crowded prisons; hence, probation offenders were no longer mainly low-level offend-
ers. According to Taxman et al. (2004), “probation rolls increasingly mirror the prison
population” and many are convicted felons (p. 3).
In addition to the continued growth in the use of probation, the profession itself has
undergone significant changes both in the types of offenders being supervised and the
factors impacting the work and day-to-day activities. The advances in technology
alone have had a tremendous influence on how probation officers supervise offenders
(DeMichele & Payne, 2007, 2012; Friel & Vaughn, 1986). For example, the use of
various types of monitoring and surveillance devices, such as global positioning satel-
lite technology, 24-hr transdermal alcohol monitoring, camera-equipped ignition inter-
lock devices, and hair, skin, and fingerprint substance use testing, makes the probation
officer’s job more complicated, albeit they do improve effectiveness of monitoring
offenders (Baer et al., 1991; Bracken, 2003; Lewis et al., 2013; Moran & Lindner,
1985; Newville, 2001). Probation officers have to learn about how these technologies
work, the benefits as well as flaws, then read and interpret reports, decipher any viola-
tions to report to the court. Moreover, the push to use evidence-based practices in

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